Istiwâ’ Is a Divine Act
(al-Qur’an 7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4)

Dr. G. Fouad Haddad

"Istiwâ’ is one of the Attributes of acts (min sifât al-af‘âl) according to the majority of the explanations." Al-Qurtubi.

"The establishment of His Throne in the heaven is known, and His Throne in the earth is the hearts of the People of Pure Monotheism (ahl al-tawhîd). He said: (and eight will uphold the Throne of their Lord that day, above them) (69:17), and [concerning] the throne of the hearts:

[We carry them on the land and the sea] (17:70).

As for the throne of the heaven: the Merciful established Himself over it (‘alayhi istawâ); and as for the throne of the hearts: the Merciful conquered it (‘alayhi istawlâ). The throne of the heaven is the direction of the supplication of creatures, while the throne of the heart is the locus of the gaze of the Real. Therefore, there is a huge difference between this throne and that!" – Al-Qushayri.

"We believe that [the Merciful established Himself over the Throne] (20:5), and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (lâ na‘lamu haqîqata mi‘na dhâlika wa al-murâda bihi), while we do believe that [There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him] (42:11) and that He is exalted far above the most elevated of created things. That is the way of the Salaf or at least their vast majority, and it is the safest because one is not required to probe into such matters." – Al-Nawawi.

Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari said:

"The establishment of Allah on the Throne is an action He has created named istiwâ’ and related to the Throne, just as He has created an action named ityân (coming) related to a certain people; and this implies neither descent nor movement." Al-Bayhaqi confirms this: "Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali al-Ash‘ari said that Allah effected an act in relation to the Throne, and He called that act istiwâ’, just as He effected other acts in relation to other objects, and He called those acts ‘sustenance’ (rizq), ‘favor’ (ni‘ma), or other of His acts." This is also the interpretation of Ibn Hazm (d. 456) – although a vehement enemy of Ash‘aris – who explains istiwâ’ as "an act pertaining to the Throne".

Abu al-Fadl al-Tamimi mentioned that two positions were reported from Imam Ahmad concerning istiwâ’: One group narrated that he considered it "of the Attributes of act" (min sifât al-fi‘l), another, "of the Attributes of the Essence" (min sifât al-dhât)." Ibn Battal mentions that Ahl al-Sunna hold either one of these two positions: "Those that interpreted istawâ as ‘He exalted Himself’ (‘alâ) consider istiwâ an Attribute of the Essence, while those who interpreted it otherwise consider it an Attribute of act."

Al-Tamimi further related that Ahmad said:

[Istiwâ’]: It means height/exaltation (‘uluw) and elevation (irtifâ‘). Allah is ever exalted (‘âlî) and elevated (rafî‘) without beginning, before He created the Throne. He is above everything (huwa fawqa kulli shay’), and He is exalted over everything (huwa al-‘âlî ‘alâ kulli shay’). He only specified the Throne because of its particular significance which makes it different from everything else, as the Throne is the best of all things and the most elevated of them. Allah therefore praised Himself by saying that He (established Himself over the Throne) , that is, He exalted Himself over it (‘alayhi ‘alâ). It is impermissible to say that He established Himself with a contact or a meeting with it. Exalted is Allah above that! Allah is not subject to change, substitution, nor limits, whether before or after the creation of the Throne.

The Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Jamra (d. 695) said something similar in his commentary on the hadith "Allah wrote a Book before He created creation, saying: Verily My mercy precedeth My wrath; and it is written with Him above the Throne":

It may be said from the fact that the Book is mentioned as being "above the Throne" that the divine wisdom has decreed for the Throne to carry whatever Allah wishes of the record of His judgment, power, and the absolute unseen known of Him alone, in order to signify the exclusivity of His encompassing knowledge regarding these matters. This makes the Throne one of the greatest signs of the exclusivity of His knowledge of the Unseen. This could explain the verse of istiwâ’ as referring to whatever Allah wills of His power, which is the Book He has placed above His Throne."

Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) interpreted istiwâ’ in the verse (The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) as "a command concerning the Throne" (amrun fi al-‘arsh), as related by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni and quoted by al-Yafi‘i in the latter’s book Marham al-‘Ilal al-Mu‘dila fi Daf‘ al-Shubah wa al-Radd ‘ala al-Mu‘tazila ("Book of the Resolution of Difficult Problems for the Removal of Doubts and the Refutation of the Mu‘tazila"):

The understanding of istiwâ’ as the turning of Allah to a particular command concerning the Throne is not far-fetched, and this is the ta’wîl of Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, who took as corroborating evidence for it the verse: (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven when it was smoke) (41:11), meaning: "He proceeded to it" (qasada ilayhâ).

Al-Tabari said, in his commentary on the verse (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens) (2:29):

The meaning of istiwâ’ in this verse is height (‘uluw) and elevation... but if one claims that this means displacement for Allah, tell him: He is high and elevated over the heaven with the height of sovereignty and power, not the height of displacement and movement to and fro.

The above position is exactly that of the Ash‘ari school, as shown by Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi’s and Ibn Hajar’s numerous comments to that effect directed against those who attribute altitude to Allahn their interpretation of His ‘uluw such as Ibn Taymiyya. The latter stated: "The Creator, Glorified and Exalted is He, is above the world and His being above is literal, not in the sense of dignity or rank." This doctrine was comprehensively refuted by Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi (d. 733) in his Radd ‘ala Man Qala bi al-Jiha ("Refutation of Ibn Taymiyya Who Attributes A Direction to Allah ") and Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani (1265-1350) in his Raf‘ al-Ishtibah fi Istihala al-Jiha ‘ala Allah ("The Removal of Doubt Concerning the Impossibility of Direction for Allah").

Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597) in the introduction of his Daf‘ Shubah al-Tashbih said of the anthropomorphists: "They are not content to say: ‘Attribute of act’ (sifatu fi‘l) until they end up saying: ‘Attribute of the Essence’ (sifatu dhât)." Ibn Hazm also said: "If the establishment on the Throne is eternal without beginning, then the Throne is eternal without beginning, and this is disbelief."

Al-Bayhaqi quotes one of the companions of al-Ash‘ari, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Tabari (d. ~380) as saying in his book Ta’wil al-Ahadith al-Mushkalat al-Waridat fi al-Sifat ("Interpretation of the Problematic Narrations Pertaining to the Attributes"): "Allahs in the heaven above everything and established (mustawin) over His Throne in the sense that He is exalted or elevated (‘âlin) above it, and the sense of istiwâ’ is self-elevation (i‘tilâ’)." This is the most widespread interpretation (ta’wîl) of the issue among the Salaf: al-Baghawi said that the meaning of the verse ( The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) according to Ibn ‘Abbas and most of the commentators of Qur’an is "He elevated Himself" (irtafa‘a). This is the interpretation quoted by al-Bukhari in his Sahih from the senior Tâbi‘i Rufay‘ ibn Mahran Abu al-‘Aliya (d. 90). Al-Bukhari also cites from Mujahid (d. 102) the interpretation "to rise above" or "exalt Himself above" (‘alâ). Ibn Battal declares the latter to be the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunna because Allah described Himself as "the Sublimely Exalted" -- ( al-‘Alî) (2:255) and said: ( exalted be He (ta‘âlâ) over all that they ascribe as partners (unto Him)!) (23:92).

In complete opposition to the above Ibn Taymiyya said in his Fatawa: "The establishment of Allah over the Throne is real, and the servant’s establishment over the ship is real" (lillâhi ta‘âlâ istiwâ’un ‘alâ ‘arshihi haqîqatan wa li al-‘abdi istiwâ’un ‘alâ al-fulki haqîqatan). "Allahs with us in reality, and He is above His Throne in reality (Allâhu ma‘ana haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).. . . Allahs with His creation in reality and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma‘a khalqihi haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan)."

Another interpretation commonly used by later Ash‘aris for istiwâ’ is that of istîlâ’ and qahr, respectively "establishing dominion" and "subduing." Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam said:

His establishment (istiwâ’) over the Throne is a metaphor for establishing dominion (istîlâ’) over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:

qad istawâ Bishrun ‘ala al-‘Irâq

min ghayri sayfin wa damin muhrâq

Bishr established mastery over Iraq

without sword and without shedding blood.

It is a metaphor of similitude with kings, who dispose of the affairs of their kingdoms while sitting among the dynastic princes. The throne may also express rank, as in ‘Umar’s t saying: "My throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord."

Ibn Battal and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi attribute the interpretation as istîlâ’ chiefly to the Mu‘tazila. Ibn Hajar said:

The Mu‘tazila said its meaning is "establishing dominion through subjugation and overpowering" (al-istîlâ’ bi al-qahr wa al-ghalaba), citing as a proof the saying of the poet:

Bishr established mastery over Iraq

without sword and without shedding blood.

The anthropomorphists (al-jismiyya) said: "Its meaning is settledness (al-istiqrâr)." Some of Ahl al-Sunna said: "Its meaning is He elevated Himself (irtafa‘a)" while others of them said: "Its meaning is He rose above (‘alâ)," and others of them said: "Its meaning is sovereignty (al-mulk) and power (al-qudra)."

The latter Sunni interpretation is evidently similar to that of istîlâ’ and qahr. However, because the Mu‘tazila claimed that the divine Attributes were originated in time rather than uncreated and beginningless, their interpretation was rejected by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna. Ibn Battal said: "The Mu‘tazila position is null and void, for Allahs qâhir, ghâlib, and mustawlî without beginning." Ibn Battal is referring to the Ash‘ari position whereby the Attributes of acts such as creation, although connected with created objects, are without beginning in relation to Allah. To those who object to istawlâ on the grounds that it necessarily supposed prior opposition, Ibn Hajar similarly remarked that that assumption is discarded by the verse: (Allah was (kâna) ever Knower, Wise) (4:17), which the scholars explained to mean "He is ever Knower and Wise."

Thus Dawud al-Zahiri’s objection that istîlâ’ necessitates a wresting from an adversary is not absolute among Ahl al-Sunna. The Ash‘ari grammarian al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 402) said that istawâ ‘alâ has the meaning of istawlâ ‘alâ ("He overcame") and cited the verse of istiwâ (20:5) as an example of this meaning: "It means that everything is alike in relation to him in such manner that no one thing is nearer to Him than another thing, since He is not like the bodies that abide in one place exclusively of another place." In this sense, both the Mu‘tazili position of origination for the Attributes and the literalist requirement of conquest-after-struggle are dismissed, and istawlâ can be safely admitted among the interpretations of Ahl al-Sunna. As Ibn Battal alluded, "establishing dominion and sovereignty," "subduing," and "conquering" no more suppose prior opposition in the face of the Creator than do His Attributes of "All-Victorious" (Zâhir) "All-Compelling" (Qahhâr), "Prevailer" (Ghâlib), or "Omnipotent" (Qâhir) presuppose resistance or power on anyone’s part. This is confirmed by the verses: (He is the Omnipotent (al-qâhir) over His slaves) (6:18, 6:61) and (Allah prevails (ghâlib) in His purpose) (12:21). Al-Raghib said: "It means that everything is alike in relation to him" and he did not say: "became alike."

Ibn al-Jawzi mentions another reason for permitting this interpretation: "Whoever interprets [and He is with you] (57:4) as meaning ‘He is with you in knowledge,’ permits his opponent to interpret istiwâ’ as ‘subduing’ (al-qahr)."

As for the linguistic precedent of the meaning istawlâ for istawâ, it is provided by the poet al-Akhtal (d. <110) who said: "Bishr established mastery over (istawâ ‘alâ) Iraq without sword and without shedding blood." Some "Salafis" reject this linguistic proof on the ground that al-Akhtal was a second-century Christian. This shows ignorance of agreed-upon criteria for the probative force of Arabic poetry in the Shari‘a, which extends at least to the year 150 and applies regardless of creed.

Dr. Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti said:

The consensus in place regarding these texts is the refraining from applying to them any meaning which establishes a sameness or likeness between Allah and His creatures, and the refraining from divesting their established lexical tenor.

The obligatory way to proceed is either to explain these words according to their external meanings which conform with divine Transcendence above any like or partner, and this includes not explaining them as bodily appendages and other corporeal imagery. Therefore it will be said, for example: He has established Himself over the Throne as He has said, with an establishment which befits His Majesty and Oneness; and He has a Hand as He has said, which befits His Divinity and Majesty; etc.

Or they can be explained figuratively according to the correct rules of language and in conformity with the customs of speech in their historical context. For example: the establishment is the establishment of dominion (istîlâ’) and that of authority (tasallut); the hand of Allahs His strength in His saying: (The hand of Allahs over their hand) (48:10) and His generosity in His saying: (Nay, both His hands are spread wide, and He bestows as He wills) (5:64).

As for the interpretation of istiwâ’ as sitting (julûs), it is asserted in the book attributed to ‘Abd Allahbn Ahmad ibn Hanbal under the title Kitab al-Sunna (p. 5, 71): "Is establishment (istiwâ’) other than by sitting (julûs)?" "Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant." Al-Khallal in his own Kitab al-Sunna (p. 215-216) states that whoever denies that "Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant" is an unbeliever. ‘Uthman al-Darimi went so far as to say in his Naqd al-Jahmiyya: "If He so willed, He could have settled on the back of a gnat and it would have carried Him thanks to His power and the favor of His lordship, not to mention the magnificient Throne." Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim endorsed these views. Al-Kawthari wrote in his Maqalat: "Whoever imagines that our Lord sits on the kursî and leaves space at His side for His Prophet to sit, he has followed the Christians who believe that ‘Isa u was raised to heaven and sat next to his Father – Allahs elevated above the partnership they ascribe to Him!"

Al-Munawi quotes the following conclusion on the verse of the Throne upon the water:

Al-Tunisi said that the verse (And His Throne was upon the water) (11:7) contains a clear proof that direction is impossible for Allah because the Throne settled (istaqarra) upon the water, therefore, since natural custom was broken by the settlement of that huge mass (jirm) – the largest of all masses – upon the water, contrary to the habitual fact that such a mass – or, rather, much less than it! – does not usually settle upon the water: it becomes known with certitude that istiwâ’ over it is not an istiwâ’ of settledness nor fixity.

The above proof is similar to the proof derived from Imam Malik’s statement: "The establishment is known, the ‘how’ is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an innovation!" Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din al-Subki pointed out that the inconceivability of the modality of istiwâ’ proved that it precluded the meaning of sitting.

In his Qur’anic commentary entitled Lata’if al-Isharat ("The Subtle Signs"), Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465) – together with Imam al-Haramayn Ibn al-Juwayni and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi the main figure in the fourth generation-layer of al-Ash‘ari’s students – sums up the position of Ahl al-Sunna concerning istiwâ’:

(He established Himself over the Throne) (7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4), however, the One without beginning has no limit (al-qadîm laysa lahu hadd). He "established Himself over the Throne," however, it is impermissible to attribute to Him proximity with His Essence nor remoteness. He "established Himself over the Throne," however, the Throne would be the most needful of all things to an iota of connection (al-wisâl) [with Him] if it were only alive! But it is a lifeless solid, and when did solids ever possess volition? He "established Himself over the Throne," however, He is the Everlasting Sovereign (al-Samad) without rival, the Unique without limit.